Seven percent of public housing units for disaster victims unoccupied: survey


About 7 percent of public housing units built in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures for people whose homes were destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami were unoccupied as of late January, a Kyodo News survey showed Saturday.

A total of 909 units were vacant out of 13,933 apartments or houses provided by 46 municipalities in those three prefectures, and by the prefectural governments of Fukushima and Iwate.

The local governments eventually plan to offer 29,105 permanent housing units for rent based on requests from disaster victims. But because of construction delays and other reasons, many have since canceled their applications, finding places to live elsewhere or building their own homes, resulting in the vacancies.

The results also underline how difficult it is for local governments to provide services for disaster victims over the long term given it has been nearly five years since the earthquake and tsunami hit. Some applicants have also canceled their application because they need to enter nursing care facilities or they have passed away.

Other reasons cited for the vacancies include inconvenient locations and high rent.

By prefecture, the vacancy rate stood at 13 percent in Iwate and 5 percent in both Miyagi and Fukushima.

By locality, the rate stood at 31 percent in the town of Yamada and 24 percent in the city of Rikuzentakata, both in Iwate Prefecture, and 18 percent in the Miyagi town of Watari.

Meanwhile, about 59,000 people still live in temporary housing in the three prefectures, underlining a mismatch between housing supply and demand. Some of those are refusing to move to public housing due to work or family circumstances.

In the town of Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, in one 100-unit public housing complex, nearly 40 percent, or 38 apartments, are vacant.

It is located where the massive 2011 tsunami swept through the area. “Some people may still be traumatized” from the disaster, according to one resident.

“If you take the free bus, you have easy access to a supermarket and the scenery is terrific,” said Tetsuko Ishioka, 75, one of the residents at the public housing. “It’s nice to live here,” she added.

Her house was swept away by the tsunami five years ago, but she was determined to stay where she was born and raised.

“It’s a waste when (the local government) built such a nice home,” Ishioka sighed.

In the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku, four of the five public housing units completed in August 2014 remain vacant. Town officials come from time to time to air them out to help maintain them.

To fill the vacancies, the Miyagi prefectural government suggested last November that those other than disaster victims should be allowed to rent public housing units. The Miyagi town of Wakuya, where eight units stand vacant, will begin soliciting occupants, possibly in April, becoming the first municipality to do so in the three prefectures.

Toshio Otsuki, professor of architectural planning at the University of Tokyo, said change in the willingness of survivors to live in public housing is inevitable and municipalities should come up with ways to make the best use of vacant units.